The Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the 2013 season with high expectations, but it will be difficult to replicate last year's success without many of the key playmakers from a year ago.
Linebacker Manti Te'o, tight end Tyler Eifert and quarterback Everett Golson led the charge last season, along with running back Theo Riddick and safety Zeke Motta—all of whom are absent this year, for one reason or another.
New leaders must emerge on both sides of the ball in order for Notre Dame's football program to come close to matching last year's impressive 12-1 record and BCS title game berth.
These players must come through in a big way for Notre Dame to achieve that daunting task. Should they put forth anything less than a stellar effort this season, the program will take a step back from last year's breakout campaign.
Tommy Rees, Quarterback
Perhaps no single player has more pressure on his shoulders this season than Rees, who was thrust into the starting role when Golson was suspended by the university this summer due to poor academics.
During his tenure as the team's starter before Golson took his job last summer, Rees displayed plenty of positive traits, but he lost his job for a reason, and it wasn't just because of his one-game suspension for off-field trouble.
Rees' propensity to turn the ball over isn't a good fit for what Brian Kelly wants from his offense. Throughout his time at Notre Dame, he's passed for 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions—a ratio that doesn't translate to consistent wins.
Though he's unquestionably the team's starting quarterback leading into the season, Rees must prove he's gotten over his turnover-happy ways and take better care of the football.
Louis Nix, Nose Tackle and Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End
The strength of Notre Dame's second-ranked scoring defense last year was its ability to stuff the run. Manti Te'o received plaudits for his fine play, and many fans likely thought he was the reason Notre Dame was so strong against the run. But without Nix, Te'o would have been exposed badly.
Nix is the key to the entire defense. His ability to occupy multiple blockers and stone them at the line of scrimmage allowed Te'o and the other linebackers to flow to the ball.
Tuitt is a perfect complement to Nix.
He's a strong pass-rusher who has incredible quickness and deceptive speed, and he helps build up a wall on the edge with skill against the run.
Both players are expected to be first-round picks in the 2014 NFL draft, and rightly so.
That said, they must be even more dominant this season than they were last year, as the absence of Te'o and Motta will be strongly felt in the middle behind them.
Prince Shembo, Linebacker
Notre Dame's secondary is solid, but the team lacks any true star power at the defensive back positions. As a result, getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be incredibly important to the team's success on the defensive side of the ball this year.
Tuitt is a monster up front, but he'll be without defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (six sacks) this year, and Prince Shembo must step up and pick up the slack in his absence.
After showing some promise in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Shembo had his coming-out party last season, posting 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Those numbers were impressive, but he'll need to ramp up his level of intensity this season and become a mad dog of a pass-rusher this season in order for the Irish to dominate on defense.
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